Sunday, January 23, 2011

ISCD Labor Issues

Last weekend I talked about some personnel issues at ISCD. At the time I did not have any specific information about the cause of the problems, just the information about the removal of the Acting Director and Acting Assistant Director and the upcoming union vote for the Chemical Facility Security Inspectors (CFSI).

Since then I have received some information from an anonymous source I am going to call Insider. I have not been able to verify this information (I am a blogger not an investigative reporter), but from the tone and wordings of the communication, Insider does appear to be what he (generic pronoun use) claims, a person with close personal contacts in the CFSI community.

The following discussion is based upon this anonymous, unverified information. I am perfectly willing to discuss a similar response from ISCD management or what ever labor organization is working on the issue.

Locality Pay

According to Insider the current labor dispute revolve around the handling of two separate pay issues for Locality Pay and Authorized Uncontrollable Overtime (AUO). To understand the first issue the reader may need to understand how the CFATS inspection force is organized.

There are 10 regional offices that are supposed to be established (I am not sure if they have all been set up and staffed, delays in Congressional funding have made this process difficult for ISCD).

Because of the wide disparity of the cost of living within this country, the Federal government provides a base level of pay for their employees and then adds a ‘locality pay’ to compensate the employees for the high cost of living in many cities. Typically that pay is limited to a 50-mile radius around the center of that area.

With CFSI spending most of their time on the road doing inspections within their region, one can understand why an inspector might not feel the need to relocate their family to within a 50 mile radius of their duty station or home office. This is particularly true since the original intent was for the CFSI not to have formal office space at the regional office; their offices would for all intents would be their laptop computers.

According to Insider:

“At the time of job postings the PD [Personnel Department] never stated that you had to work inside the locality area. For new hires this meant a drop in pay immediately from what they agreed to and promised by NPPD. Some Inspectors would of never left their past jobs with this bait and switch method.”
Now I can understand how the detailed explanation of how ‘locality pay’ would be handled might not come up in the initial pre-employment interview process. The people doing these interviews would have been people that had worked in the Federal government for a while and the administrative aspects of the Federal pay system would be second nature to them. One would like to think, however, that as the pre-employment process moved along that pay issues would have been better explained.

Insider goes on to explain:

“For the veteran Inspector cadre, those living outside the 50 mile area of a duty station, have been receiving the locality pay for their respected duty station. Some Inspectors have received paperwork that they must now repay the Government upwards to $30k since these new locality pay rules have come to fruition.”
Being required to re-pay that amount of money does not sound like just a failure to explain the details of the Federal pay system. It sounds like there was a change in the way the pay system was administered. In fact, Insider explains that CFSI “are being left on the hook to pay back wages that upper level administrators signed off on long ago”.

Now I can fully understand changes being made to the way the compensation program was being managed; the Federal government, like most governments and private sector companies, is trying to reduce their costs. But, making changes and then making them retroactive, seems to be a bit much. What I suspect happened, is that ISCD stood up this entirely new personnel program and didn’t fully understand the intricacies of the Federal payroll system. Then the IG or some other oversight group checked on the program and found problems with how this was being administered. Base upon this type review someone declared that some of the CFSI had been overpaid.

Now I have seen similar things happen in the military. I have personally been overpaid when I received an advance pay and was then paid my full pay for the same period in the next paycheck. This was, of course, back before the full automation of the pay system and I was fully warned that it would happen and that Uncle Sam would take back the excess money at some future date. The difference, of course, was that pay problem was fully understood and the people making the ‘advance pay’ were completely up front in about what could be expected to happen.

What seems to have happened here is that ISCD management made a mistake in the way they set up their compensation program. When that mistake was identified and corrected the CFSI were left to pay for the mistake of management. Now management makes mistakes from time to time; it is the nature of the beast. To leave the work force holding the bag for those mistakes, however, is always inexcusable. Unfortunately, bureaucracies seldom have the flexibility to do otherwise.

If what I think happened was the cause of this problem, I’m afraid that only Congress will be able to fix the issue. It would be nice to think that the people who caused the problem at ISCD would lobby Congress to fix the problem, but again, political realities would suggest that that can’t happen. The political controllers would be loath to allow the professionals to call such a problem to the attention of Congress; it would reflect poorly on their control of reigns of government.

Authorized Uncontrollable Overtime

The accountability issue with locality pay is also affecting another portion of the compensation program for CFSI. CFSI hold salaried positions; they receive a base salary figured on a 40-hour workweek. It is fully recognized, however, that because of the inherent nature of their job, that they will be working substantially more than 40 hours on a fairly routine basis and that it would be unreasonable to have that overtime work specifically approved in advance.

So they are compensated for that overtime under a program known as ‘Authorized Uncontrollable Overtime’ (AUO). To keep that system under some sort of control they are expected to account for the amount of time that they spend at work, over and above the standard 40 hours. From a budgeting perspective, management typically sets forth some general guidance about how much AUO is generally going to be expected. That expectation gets passed down to the workers so that they know how much work will be okayed without prior approval.

To keep the AUO system from being abused, employees must provide justification for the amount of overtime that they perform. In jobs like those performed by the CFSI, this is a difficult process at best. Since they don’t maintain regular office hours and can’t forecast how much time they will be putting in, it is very difficult to keep track of this on an on-going basis.

So what typically happens is that people in these types of positions use guidance that they receive from management on expected overtime as the figure that they report for their overtime. That usually understates the amount of time they are actually putting in, but the approval process for time over that is typically viewed as not worth the effort to get the actual time approved. Management stays happy because they remain within budget (and in fact look good because they are able to forecast overtime so well) and the employees receive compensation for most of their hard work.

Two potential problems arise out of this type system. First, overtime, employees begin to see the routine overtime compensation as part of their regular pay and base their personal budgets on that higher figure. If something happens to reduce the routine overtime, they may be hurt financially when that pay is cut. No one sees the time CFSI spend on the CFATS implementation inspections being cut anytime soon. They are so far behind in the inspection process (due to slow funding for new inspectors, the archaic hiring process and underestimation of the time to complete the inspection process) that they are going to be extremely over worked for the foreseeable future.

The second problem is caused by the fact that the bureaucracy requires that the overtime pay is justified each pay period. Since it takes a severely anal retentive personality to faithfully keep the detailed records necessary to accurately account for the additional time spent on this type of job, and no one is going to be actually paid for the hours spent in excess of the amount ‘authorized’ by management, this justification is typically more of an exercise in creative writing than in time management.

Generally this works out okay. The employees receive a consistent level of pay that almost compensates for the long work hours and excessive time on the road and management looks good for their ability to forecast and control their departmental expenses. As long as both sides trust each other, this sort of thing generally works really well.

Unfortunately, that trust has now evaporated in ISCD. The CFSI, based upon what they have seen happen with locality pay, are now worried about their justifications of AUO. They are very afraid that they may be asked to repay all or parts of the AUO that they have received because of potentially inadequate records to back up the justifications that they have filed to date. The justifications provided were acceptable to management when submitted, but the CFSI can no longer feel that management will stand behind their earlier judgments’.

Inevitably what is going to happen is that the CFSI will start to get more attentive to their record keeping about the amount of time that they spend on the job. That will just as inevitably detract from the time spent on actually doing their job. Since they can no longer trust management to back them up on these sorts of things, when they reach the time limits set by management in the AUO guidance, they will stop work. One just typically cannot expect people to put in too much free work for a management team that is not trusted.

Problem Resolution

It seems to me that for the CFATS program to be an effective program there needs to be a minimum level of understanding and trust between the CFSI and the folks running ISCD. That does not currently seem to be the case. This issue needs to be resolved and I am afraid that unionizing the CFSI will do little to resolve that underlying trust and understanding problem. If the information provided by Insider is correct, I understand why people would look towards forming a Union to protect them from what appear to be unfair practices. I just don’t think that unionization will resolve the larger, underlying issues.

Congress, exercising their oversight responsibility, needs to step up and look into this problem immediately. Since they control the purse strings, they are the only ones that can now resolve the pay problem associated with the collection of back pay on the locality pay issue and provide the guidance going forward to resolve the issue. If that issue is not resolved promptly, I’m afraid that the AUO issue will further slow the implementation/inspection process. That would destroy the creditability of the CFATS program.

Rep. King and/or Sen. Lieberman need to tell DHS to stop the collection of back locality pay pending further Congressional investigation. And that needs to happen immediately. Otherwise, we are going to end up with a security program that operates in the same way that OSHA and EPA enforce chemical safety programs, effective security enforcement action will only be taken at facilities that have had a serious security incident. We can’t afford another such program.

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